How rats move in VR with only mind control
An artificial intelligence reads the rodents' intentions from their brain patterns and gives them "supernatural powers" in VR.
Rats can move in virtual reality using only their thoughts. That's the result of an experiment in which an artificial intelligence analyzed the animals' brain activity. It helped them solve tasks in a VR world using only their thoughts to get rewards.
Design of the experiment
The researchers used a brain-machine interface to record electrical activity in the hippocampus of rats. The hippocampus is a brain region responsible for spatial memory and navigation. It contains neurons called place cells that emit different electrical patterns depending on the animal's position.
The rats were placed on a spherical treadmill that transmitted their movements to a virtual world on a screen. It consisted of a one-square-meter area with several tall columns. When the rats reached a column, they were rewarded.
The researchers trained an artificial intelligence to infer the rats' position in the VR world from their brain activity. They then separated the treadmill from the VR environment.
Rats move in VR with mind power
This meant that the rats could no longer reach their destination by moving. Instead, the AI translated the rats' brain activity. It determined the animals' desired destination in the VR world and guided them there.
The technique worked for three out of four animals. The researchers also tested whether the rats could similarly move a virtual object with their thoughts. This experiment also succeeded in three out of four rodents.
A ray of hope for paralyzed humans?
The results suggest that rats have location memory. Rats can also imagine revisiting places, leading to a detectable change in brain activity. The experiment also shows that artificial intelligence is able to read such intentions from brain signals and act accordingly.
The experiment is not only interesting for research on spatial memory and imagination in animals. According to Daniel Bendor of University College London, such brain-machine interfaces could help paralyzed people get around by controlling the corresponding machines with their thoughts. Bendor cautions, however, that the AI would need to be trained for each new environment.
VR experiments have often been conducted on rats
Rats are now real VR professionals. Many virtual reality experiments have already been conducted on these rodents. These have shown, for example, that rats show reduced brain activity in VR mazes. The rodents also played an important role in experiments on anxiety research using VR.